The One Thing the Left Can Learn from Ayn Rand
A little while ago, I wrote an article on "Five Things the Right Can Learn from Ayn Rand." Afterwards, a reader suggested I should do a follow-up on what the left can learn from Ayn Rand.
Well, the mind reels.
They could stand to learn the same five things, of course, particularly the point about "pathological altruism." And there's so much more. There's the absurdity of haggling over the redistribution of wealth without asking who produces the wealth in the first place, and how they do it. There is Ayn Rand's examination of how government controls hurt the common man (and yes, she was concerned about that) while it rewards wealthy cronies with good Washington connections. There is the way free speech disappears when the government controls the whole economy. There is the way science sells its soul when it allows itself to become a tool of government policy, which is a major subplot of Atlas Shrugged and seems all the more relevant today. And there is much, much more.
But in starting to tick down the list, I was overcome with a sense of futility.
If I make a list of Objectivist ideas I wish people on the right would study and take more seriously, I know that many of them have read Ayn Rand, have been influenced by her in some way, and are willing to think about what she has to say. A few are contemptuously dismissive and close their minds to her ideas. But for the most part, even if conservatives don't agree with her philosophy, Ayn Rand is part of the conversation.
In giving such a list to the left, however, I doubt that very many of them will bother to take it seriously, because she's Ayn Rand and therefore beyond the pale. It's a lot harder to take even the first step of acknowledging that there might be anything of value to learn.
This is symptomatic of a wider problem. The open-minded left is not quite so open-minded.
So there is only one lesson the left really needs to learn from Ayn Rand: "There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think."
The events of the past few weeks have really highlighted that, haven't they? Because today's left is positively obsessed with purging evil thoughts. In doing so, they're destroying their ability to think.
As a young atheist observing my friends, I realized that those who had the most difficulty dealing with a religious upbringing—regardless of whether or not they remained religious—were those who had been taught that it is a sin to doubt. They were constantly being shoved up against lines of thought that they couldn't let themselves pursue, issues where it was a basic betrayal of their values to follow the evidence wherever it might lead.
For all its supposed secularism, the contemporary left has plenty of it own areas where it is a sin to doubt. In fact, they have turned the word "denier"—in this context, a synonym for "doubter"—into their favorite epithet. Is the burning of fossil fuels really causing a disastrous change in the weather? It is a sin to doubt. Is there really a campus rape "epidemic" supported by a "rape culture"? It is a sin to doubt. Is America—50 years after the dismantling of segregation and with a black man in the Oval Office—really a country so mired in racism that it deliberately and systematically murders young black men? It is a sin to doubt.
So in the past few weeks, if you are on the left, you have been urged to regard the facts of two sensational, high profile cases—a police shooting in Missouri and an alleged rape at the University of Virginia—as unimportant. It doesn't matter if Michael Brown really had his hands up and was trying to surrender when he was shot, what matters is maintaining the "metaphor." It doesn't matter if a young woman was really gang-raped at a fraternity, what matters is the "wider truth" about "rape culture." "To let fact checking define the narrative," an earnest young editor at UVA's Cavalier Daily insists, "would be a huge mistake." In effect, you are being told that the facts should never be allowed to get in the way of the correct political narrative. But from another perspective, what you are being told is that the facts should never be allowed to tempt you into the sin of doubting.
Consider how this applies to the case for capitalism. If there were ever a system that proved its value for improving human life, it is the free market. Industrial capitalism is, in fact, the only thing that has ever made it possible for large numbers of people to lift themselves out of poverty. Whereas socialism has repeatedly failed, in every form and variation and on every continent. Not only did it fail, but it was responsible for vast, inconceivable crimes. (Google "Holodomor" sometime. Just don't do an image search if you want to sleep for the next few nights.)
Yet it is usually considered self-evident that socialists are idealists who are concerned about the little guy, while advocates of capitalism want to push the masses down into poverty.
The same thing goes for the welfare state. The War on Poverty has spent trillions of dollars over 50 years and has merely fixed poverty into place. Yet if you advocate the expansion of the welfare state, you are regarded as proving how deeply you care about the plight of the poor. Criticize the welfare state, and you are regarded as callous and indifferent to all human suffering.
If your brain is now feeding you a torrent of counter-arguments, half-remembered bits of Paul Krugman columns about how European socialism or the Great Society was really a roaring success—all I'm asking is that you take a few moments to stop that process and really, genuinely consider whether those of us on the right might have a valid point to make about the achievements of capitalism or the shortcomings of the welfare state. Assess how comfortable you are doing this. Assess whether you're even able to do it, whether you've ever bothered to find out enough about our counter-arguments to fairly consider them.
Then ask yourself this. Which big-government regulatory or welfare programs would you choose to eliminate? Realistically, they can't all be successful. Any task requires a certain amount of trial and error, and certainly there must be some programs where the costs have overwhelmed any conceivable benefit. Can you name such a program? Would you campaign to eliminate it if a politician proposed its repeal?
If you can't name such a program, if you've never really asked yourself the question, ask yourself why.
The gap between the left's laudatory self-image and the less-than-spectacular results of its programs is widely interpreted on the right as evidence that smug self-congratulation is the real purpose. It doesn't matter whether a government program actually works, so long as you can pat yourself on the back for being progressive enough to vote for it. But I'm beginning to wonder whether the actual goal is the avoidance of evil thoughts. Ask yourself: how much of your political self-image is tied up in regarding yourself as better and purer than those wicked "deniers" on the right?
What else is the meaning of all those admonitions to "check your privilege" and purge yourself of the "unconscious racism" that you are told is all-pervasive? This is meant to install the habit of constantly policing your brain for evil thoughts.
This is an attitude that has deep ideological roots in the basic philosophy of the left. Karl Marx's materialistic theories insisted that economic relationships are the real drivers of the world, that the struggle between economic classes defines the real meaning of everything. In this view, any discussion of ideas or moral values is just a false front for deeper conflicts over economic power. Any argument for capitalism is just a "legitimating ideology" for oppression. So there's no point in debating whether an idea is actually true. The important thing is to get on the right side of history. The secular name for "sin," in this Marxist ideology, is "false consciousness," the presumptuous belief that ideas can be considered and debated as ideas, rather than as projections of the underlying class struggle.
Marxism has gone in for a good bit of updating and postmodernizing, but that basic attitude persists. There is still a presumption that arguments for the other side just serve as a false front for the interests of big corporations, the Koch brothers, or "the patriarchy" and must not be taken seriously by any decent, progressive person.
In fact, it was one of the recent variations on Marxism that gave us the slogan that "the personal is the political," that there is no domain of life, no matter how private or trivial—from awkward sexual encounters to, say, the video games you play or the goofy shirt you wear—that isn't really about some vast political power struggle. Hence the drive to make sure all of these things are "politically correct." This attitude is not only alive and well today. It is becoming dominant on the left.
I'm concerned that for many on the left, this outlook is becoming deeply internalized. It's not just that the personal is the political, but the political has taken on an unhealthy personal meaning, defining the very essence of who you are.
For the right, politics and government is generally regarded as something to be gotten out of the way so that we can get on with the real business of life, which is about work and family and sports and entertainment and—well, just about anything except politics. We see ourselves as good people because we are good at our jobs, because we are good husbands and wives, because we are good parents, and so on.
By contrast, when you think government should be involved in everything, when politics is the key to every aspect of life, then your whole personal identity, and especially your ability to think of yourself as a good person, is identified with being on the right side of various political controversies. It becomes a sin to doubt, because that means doubting the validity of the very thing that makes you a good person. It is a serious personal dilemma.
That's where it can be helpful to know the original context of Ayn Rand's admonition that "There are no evil thoughts except one." In Atlas Shrugged, this is part of an exchange between two of the heroes, when one of them is struggling with a new idea that goes against his existing convictions. The idea is so radical that it seems not only false but wrong to even consider—yet the new perspective it gives him is intoxicating. Ayn Rand's philosophical point is that a specific error is less to be feared because it can always be corrected; but the rejection of reason, the attempt to place certain issues off limits for questioning, freezes your errors into place permanently. But what the passage is really about the sense of release that comes from throwing off an old dogma and reconsidering the world from the perspective of a liberating new idea.
Rearden burst out laughing.
[He] did not know how long that moment lasted or what he had felt, but it had been like a blow hurling him into another kind of consciousness, then a second blow returning him to his own—all that was left, as at the awakening from a narcotic, was the feeling that he had known some immense kind of freedom, never to be matched in reality....
He found himself backing away from Francisco d'Anconia. Francisco stood watching him intently, and looked as if he had been watching him all through that unknown length of time.
"There are no evil thoughts, Mr. Rearden," Francisco said softly, "except one: the refusal to think."
That's a little glimpse of what it's like out here where there are no politically correct dogmas on which your self-esteem depends. The next time you find yourself reeling from some "outrageous" argument made by someone on the right, it might help to have Francisco's voice somewhere in the back of your head, saying "There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think."
If you listen to that voice, perhaps some day you'll join us. Life is a lot more fun when it is not a sin to doubt.